MIT, Bell Labs Show Off Their (New) Brain

BOSTON (06/22/2000) - Computers that can recognize our faces and our voices, and do it well, always seem to be just a bit over the horizon. But, as of Thursday, that horizon may have inched closer to our desks, with researchers at Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Bell Labs and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), announcing the creation of an electronic circuit that mimics the functions of the central nervous system.

The circuit, built onto a standard silicon-based computer chip, emulates the design and function of neurons, the cells that make up the brain. At least 100 billion neurons are in a human brain. Each neuron links to tens of thousands of other neurons, which enable sensory input and processing, communication and decision-making. And that, at least on a small scale, is just what this new chip does.

The team that made the announcement is made up of MIT researchers Richard Hahnloser, a fellow in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; Rahul Sarpeshkar, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and H. Sebastian Seung, assistant professor of computational neuroscience, as well as Rodney Douglas and Misha Mahowald from the Institute of Neuroinformatics in Switzerland, conducted the bulk of the research at Bell Labs' Murray Hill, New Jersey facility. Both Sarpeshkar and Seung are also Bell Lab consultants.

Inspired by the intricacies and efficiency of the human brain, the group set out to create powerful, yet energy efficient devices, according to Seung, who noted that previous emulations of biological organs, such as the retina of the eye or the cochlea in the ear, had been attempted, but that his group wanted to "emulate the ... microcircuitry of the brain itself."

Although they have succeeded, they have only done so on a small scale, Seung said. The circuit, which was unveiled in an article in the June 22 issue of the journal Nature, contains only 16 artificial neurons, a number much smaller than the brain's billions.

Seung called the circuit a "small step" and says that it is more an illustration of an idea, rather than a product ready to be used in the market.

However, when ready, the applications of such a chip could be broad and powerful. Some uses include the recognition of faces and voices by computers powered by something as meager as a watch battery, or the development of new, more accurate and powerful compression schemes for audio and video communication, Seung said.

The research team looked for inspiration in the structure of the brain, Seung said, adding that the brain does many things better than a computer. But, if the work of the group, and the others who Seung said are working on scaling the research to larger levels, succeeds, the human brain might face a challenge.

Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, can be reached at +1-908-582-3000 or MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, can be reached at +1-617-258-9276 or

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